In this article, I will go over the steps you need to take and the decisions you need to make to enter the wonderful world of film 35mm photography.
I recommend starting with the 35mm format as the cameras are cheap and plentiful and can deliver great results. They are small thus making it easy to always have one on you. 35mm also provides the widest choice of available film. There are other smaller and much larger formats but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.
I will start with ten quick tips to get you warmed up, then move on to cover camera selection, acquisition, and getting the most out of it. I’ll go on to cover the film stocks you can shoot with your new camera and how to develop them yourself. …and finally, I’ll talk a bit about digitizing your negatives (or slides) and how you can organize and protect your precious film for future reference, they are your originals after all!
Who knows, one day you make want to take the next step and take them to a darkroom. Here are the topics I cover:
Let’s dive in.
10 tips to get you started
You have been shooting digital for a while and want to see what this analogue world is all about. But how do you go about it? Where do you start? And where do you end?
- Buy an inexpensive 35mm SLR with a lens ($30 – $100).
- Don’t overlook buying local (Facebook Marketplace, mobile apps like letgo & OfferUp).
- Consider having your camera serviced (CLA – Cleaning, Lubrication, Adjustment).
- Get some common 35mm film.
- Keep things simple! Stick with one camera and film until you are comfortable with the process.
- For black and white film developing, consider starting with a monobath developer.
- For color film, get a complete development kit.
- Before buying a scanner, consider the film formats you may want to scan in the future.
- Check with your local library, you may be able to scan your film for free.
- Process your film to archival standards and carefully organize in archival sleeves.
Sounds intriguing? Next up, let’s look at what camera to buy, where to get it, and how to get it ready for action. After that, you will need some color or black and white film, which depends on your personal preference as well as your intended final product.
With your film shot, should you have a lab develop your film or should you do it yourself? Both black and white and color negatives are fairly easy to handle and can provide both cost savings as well as control over the process. And the satisfaction! Let’s review the chemicals you will need and some basic required equipment.
Finally, I’ll be talking about what you can do once your developed film has dried, touching on scanning options and how to keep your film safe for years to come.
Here we go.
Getting a camera
Let’s make some assumptions here. We’re going to focus on traditional photography with a camera and a lens captured on film.
Following one path, you end up with pictures on a processed film that you then digitize to view on your computer or phone and share as you would with digital photographs – this is called a “hybrid workflow”. Following another, you take your film to a darkroom and make darkroom prints that are either the final product or they are what you digitize.
Here, I will focus on the first path as that is the first step anyway. You will need a camera.
I recommend starting with a 35mm camera as they are cheap and can deliver great results. You can consider online sources like eBay but also search locally. I hear lots of people have good luck in local thrift stores but not me. However, you can look at the Facebook Marketplace or mobile apps like letgo or OfferUp to find some good deals.
You should be able to get started for $30 – $100.
Both SLRs, as well as rangefinder cameras, can deliver great results. If you are a digital shooter, consider whether some of your investment in lenses could be reused. For example, as a Nikon shooter, my first analog camera of choice was a Nikon FE. Another solid choice is Pentax, either with their original M42 screw mount lenses (for example the classic Spotmatic) or their newer K mount (for example the K1000). In either case, there is an almost endless selection of lenses for you down the road.
If you want to try film photography but do not want to go old-fashioned with manual focus, you can look into some cameras from the 1990s or early 2000s just before digital exploded. They’re usually made of plastic and don’t have much value as collectables, thus sport really low prices. They may offer auto-focus, matrix metering, and a host of other model-based features. For example, the Nikon N75/F75 often goes for about $35 on eBay including a kit zoom lens.
If you don’t really care about any manual controls and want a fully automatic camera, choices are plentiful and cheap (e.g., Olympus MJU (Stylus)), unless you set your mind on one of the rangefinders that recently skyrocketed in popularity and command high prices (e.g., Contax G). Once you get your camera and a lens, do a thorough cleaning of the outside and the optics. If the camera requires a battery, pop it in (you can save a bundle buying a multi-pack online). Then, go out and shoot a test roll. You want to make sure everything works before you rely on your camera on an important trip or at an important event.
Your luck getting used equipment can vary wildly. Some cameras hit the ground running, others may need some attention. Common problems can include light leaks where the light seals no longer perform. The shutter may no longer run at the correct speeds and may need to be adjusted. Or, the shutter can malfunction at certain shutter speeds. If the camera features a light meter, it may or may not work and if it works, it may not be accurate.
Based on how serious you are about your analog endeavors, you may want to send your camera out for a CLA – Cleaning, Lubrication, and Adjustment. Make sure you go with a reputable service place, not necessarily the cheapest one.
There are places that specialize in certain camera brands, and some service a wide variety of cameras. While $150 can look like a lot for a CLA, consider what you get in the end if you buy a camera for $50 and pay another $150 for the CLA. For $200 you should have a solid camera that will last for years. Also, the CLA often includes any small parts that may need to be replaced, including light seals. Often, light meters get fixed or replaced and calibrated too.
A reputable place will walk you through what you can expect before you send your camera out, either via e-mail or over the phone. For a 35mm SLR I have had a solid experience with Blue Moon Camera in Portland, Oregon.
I recommend resisting the temptation of immediately suffering from GAS – Gear Acquisition Syndrome. It may be tempting to start buying low priced cameras left and right but unless you plan to become a collector I recommend buying two cameras at most (to have a backup) and focusing on the process and on the objective of getting to wonderful analog images.
Selecting the right film for you
The 35mm format offers a great choice of films, both color and black and white. You can start with the big names in the industry like ILFORD or Kodak or use films made in the region you live in. I started with a combination of ILFORD and Fomapan black and white films. Once you are on solid ground with your initial choice and get the whole process under your belt you can look for additional inspiration here on EMULSIVE, on the Film Photography Project’s store, Analogue Wonderland, or other niche manufacturers like Film Washi.
At the moment, Analogue Wonderland offers 126 different 35mm films split between black and white and color. That should keep you going for a while.
As with the cameras, I would caution not to go too crazy right at the beginning and focus on a limited number of film stocks. An ISO 100 and ISO 400 film should be really all you need. Why? Each film is a little different and will look a little differently based on how it gets developed, scanned, printed, etc. Thus, keeping the variables to a minimum at the beginning of your journey can lead to better results quickly as you perfect your specific choices.
So where do you start? Color or black and white? That is a very subjective and a personal choice. If you like black and white photography I recommend starting there as it further simplifies the process. Home development is slightly easier and scanning can be much easier as you don’t have to worry about color correction. Would you like to make darkroom prints down the road? Then black and white is certainly the simpler choice.
Developing black and white film
To develop black and white negative film, the choice of chemicals is almost endless. Different developers work differently with different film and may result in different contrast, different grain, and other nuances. Over time you will develop your own preferences. For a traditional process, you will need three solutions: a developer, stop bath, and a fixer. Some developers come in powder form that you mix yourself (e.g., Kodak D-76, Kodak XTOL, or ILFORD ID-11). The advantage is that shipping is cheaper. The disadvantage is that you usually end up with a large amount, like a gallon, which has a limited lifespan. Keep your developer in full bottles – air is your enemy here. A cheap way can be using glass marbles you add to the bottle as it empties to keep it always full.
Other developers come in liquid concentrates (e.g., Kodak HC-110, ILFORD Ilfotec DD-X, Adox Rodinal) that you later dilute to make a single-use working solution thus eliminating the worry about a large amount going bad on you quickly.
Fewer discussions are had on the topic of a stop bath and a fixer. Stop bath (e.g., ILFORD Ilfostop, Sprint Systems Block Stop, Eco Pro Clearstop, Foma Fomacitro Stop) is much preferred to just plain water for film development as it helps to stop the development process quickly. For a fixer, both powders (e.g., Kodak Fixer) and liquids (e.g., ILFORD Rapid Fixer, Photographers’ Formulary TF-4 Archival Rapid Fixer) are available. One topic of discussion regarding fixers is whether to use hardening or non-hardening fixers. Opinions differ and each have their advantages and disadvantages.
Recently, another even simpler solution gained in popularity and that is using a monobath, which conveniently combines all three steps into one. I feel like this may be the best start for someone new to film. With a monobath, lots of decision points are removed and less can go wrong. You also need less equipment (like graduates) to get started. These are some popular mono baths: FPP Super Monobath, Cinestill Df96 Monobath, Famous Format FF No.1 Monobath and Bellini FX6a Monobath. A properly fixed film goes through a wash cycle in plain running water. Many recommend also using hypo clear to both improve archival properties as well as save on water (e.g., FPP Archival Permanent Wash, Photographers’ Formulary Hypo Clear, Eco Pro Hypo Wash, Kodak Hypo Clear). Especially the first one on the list from FPP can make for some dramatic improvements with a 1-minute water wash, 1-minute Permanent Wash, and 1-minute final water wash.
And finally, before pulling your film out of the tank and hanging it to dry I recommend some type of a wetting agent (e.g., ILFORD Ilfotol, Kodak Photo-Flo). Otherwise, you are risking drying marks that can be very frustrating and much more difficult to remove once the film is cut into strips. Often recommended is removing excess water from the film once hung up. Some people just put the film between their index and middle fingers and slide down to facilitate better drying. Others use lint-free micro-fiber cloths or pads like the Photographic Solutions PEC-PAD. I would personally stay away from any hard surface squeegees to minimize the possibility of scratching.
Developing color negative and colour slide film
If you prefer color and would like to do home development with a target of digitizing your film there are several good simple choices to get you started these days. Most color negative films are processed in C-41 chemistry and several companies now offer kits that take care of all the processing stages. For example, Cinestill’s Cs-41 Liquid Developing kit, Unicolor’s Powder C-41 Processing Kit, the Bellini Monopart C-41 kit, or the FPP Powder C-41 Development kit.
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The main difference from black and white is that color negatives are processed at a higher temperature (102°F vs. ~68°F) and thus you need to take additional steps to maintain that temperature at least for the 3.5 minutes it takes to develop the film. But really, keeping your graduates and the development tank in a large tray filled with water of that temperature seems to work fine for me. If you want to get fancy later, there are tools to keep that perfect temperature for you. With these kits, you end up with three baths, like with the black and white process: developer, blix (bleach and fix), and stabilizer.
Usually a pre-wash (and preheat) precedes the developer. And another wash is done between blix and stabilizer. I also recommend adding a wetting agent of your choice to the stabilizer to minimize the chance of drying marks.
Color also offers one more option. Rather than shooting negatives, you can use a positive film, or color reversal film, or slide film, all terms for the same. These films are usually developed using a so-called E-6 process. The advantages are fine grain and great colors and easier scanning. A disadvantage can be lower latitude and much higher price. As with C-41, development kits are offered for E-6. For example, Freestyle Photographic Supplies offers Arista E-6 Slide Developing kit and Tetenal Colortec E-6 Developing kit. At this point I must mention that even with black and white, it is possible to get reversal film and end up with positive images but it is a much less common process.
Do you not want to jump into home development right at the beginning? Search your area for any remaining labs, or find a good online lab that won’t break the bank. Relying on others at least at the beginning can expedite your way to getting good initial results. However, nothing can really replace the suspense of developing your own film and waiting for fixing and washing to be completed. Once you open that tank up and pull the film out to hang it to dry, it’s exhilarating! Seeing your images come to life in that very instant is a feeling that does not seem to fade over time.
Film development tanks
Whether you go the black and white or color route, you will need a tank and reels to develop your film. There are many options out there and many opinions. The two basic choices are steel or plastic. I recommend plastic at the beginning. They are cheap and with some practice get the job done easily. In the U.S. the standard seems to be the Paterson Universal Tank (Super System 4). Get the two-reel version even if you plan to start with just a single roll at a time. At no extra cost it provides options down the road.
If you never loaded film onto the development reels, either find an old film roll somewhere or buy some cheap film to practice on. You really want to try this in light first. Yes, it is going to waste the roll but it will save you frustration later. It’s better to waste an empty roll than to risk problems with a roll full of precious images. Load it once, open the reel, rewind the film, and try again. Once you get the hang of it, take it into absolute darkness and practice some more on this sacrificial roll.
The Paterson reels use bearing balls at the outer edge to push the film onto the reel. It’s a simple and effective system but since it is pushing the film in, it can come with issues. When you clip the film leader off, try to cut under an angle into a U shape so that the edges to not easily get caught along the way. Once you start the back and forth motion to wind the film in, do not utilize the full range of motion the reel provides but go in small steps. That helps to make the pushing smoother. After the film goes around once it tends to get caught somewhere. You can locate how far the film got with your fingers and gently pull the reel sides apart there while trying to rock it in. After that, it’s usually smooth cruising.
EM: Malcolm Myers put together this excellent guide on loading Paterson reels and tanks.
Should something go terribly wrong and you are not sure what and how to fix it, just open the reel and rewind the film back into the cassette and start over. Patience does it and you will never have a reason to turn the light on before the film is safely closed in the tank.
Almost all films today need to be loaded in complete darkness. That means no safe light of any color. If you have a darkroom, that’s a great place. Basement at night can work. A closet at night can work. Bathroom with a covered window at night can work. If you do not have a dark place, a changing bag or a changing tent can come handy and there are several brands out there (e.g., Arista, Paterson, Photoflex, Harrison).
Larger ones are easier to use You will only need a tiny bit of space to lay out your tools. The tank, the lid, the reels, and scissors to cut the film from the cassette. I like to lay them out in the order they will be used. Start with the light on, cut the leader off, and push the film into the bearings. Then the light goes out and the rest has to be done in the dark. Once the whole film goes on the reel cut it with the scissors, move the reel sides couple more times for the end to be pulled in, place the reel on the center rod, add the second reel even if empty to prevent the first one from sliding up in case you use less chemistry, close the lid. Now the light can come on. The development can be done in normal light.
Often recommended are the Arista Premium Plastic Developing Reels that will fit the Paterson tank. You can also get these with the Arista Premium Double Reel Developing Tank with Two Reels for just a little more than the Paterson Tank. These reels offer a loading lip at the top that helps guide the film in for easier loading. Plenty of options exist to expand into at later stages but a simple two-reel tank can provide years of reliable film development.
Almost no chemistry likes air and can oxidize rather quickly. In my experience, this pertains especially to the solutions mixed from powder. For example, both Kodak XTOL and Dektol can go bad rapidly.
Make sure your bottles are full to the brim. If you use plastic storage bottles, you can give them a squeeze to bring the liquid level up. Glass marbles can be a great alternative or to be used with glass bottles. Just pour in as many as needed to raise the level all the way up. And finally, when using tap water to mix your chemicals, do not use a faucet with an aerator. Your bottle would be so full of mixed-in air that your solution would go bad before you could blink.
The regulations vary wildly country by country and even regionally. Call your local recycling department or its equivalent and find more about all of the options available to you. Be a good citizen of our planet and dispose of your chemicals as cleanly as possible. For example, fixer will end up with high levels of silver, which is a heavy metal, and needs to be properly disposed of.
Scanning your film
You got your camera and your film, you have shot a test roll, got it developed, and now what? Unless you are heading to a darkroom, this will be the point where you need to digitize your film to be able to get prints or to share on social media or via other means. Your choice comes down to combination flatbed scanners, which can scan both reflective material and transparencies, dedicated film scanners, or digitizing your film with a digital camera or a smartphone.
Flatbed scanners can be the cheaper and more universal choice as you can use one scanner to scan both prints (should you do your darkroom printing) as well as film. Many flatbed scanners can scan 35mm as well as medium format 120 film. While I have not discussed medium format here at all, it may come handy down the road should that attract you on your photographic journey.
You can buy them new or used – check the same sources as mentioned above for buying a camera. Make sure the film (transparency) holders are not missing and pick a scanner with a large enough light in the lid to cover both formats (35mm and 120). I have seen scanners that take holders for 120 film but the backlight in the lid was only a 35mm format strip, thus poorly illuminating the larger film. The Epson line of V* scanners is very popular (e.g., V500, V550, V600, etc.).
Dedicated film scanners come in two different varieties: true scanners, where a moving sensor scans the frame in high resolution, or camera type digitizers that capture the whole frame as a photograph. If you search your favorite online marketplace for “film scanner” you will see they start as low as $30 and go into thousands. You will need to make a choice based on your desired use. If social sharing is the sole purpose, the cheap ones may be just fine. If you are looking to archive high-resolution scans or do large prints you may want to step into the $100+ territory.
The price of a scanner is not driven just by its resolution. Scanners often offer other useful functionality such as infra-red scratch and dust removal, multiple exposures, and a host of other features made possible by both hardware as well as the included software.
Finally, if you are coming to film from the digital world and already have a digital camera and a tripod, you may already have all you need. All you need is a source of backlight, which could be as simple as a tablet, possibly some diffusion material (like tissue paper or white plexiglass) to diffuse the individual pixels from coming through on your photograph, and a camera on a tripod aimed at your film laying on the backlit surface. If you also own studio lighting, that can serve as a perfect source of diffused backlight.
For high resolution, a macro lens or extension tubes are necessary. You will also quickly realize that holding the film perfectly flat for a perfect focus is a bit tricky. There are tools coming to the market aiming to help with this method, like the recently Kickstarted pixl-latr. It’s also possible to get good results with high-quality museum glass laid over the film (make sure to turn off any ambient light to eliminate reflections). If you have a photo enlarger handy, the film holders work great for this purpose too. After all, that is what they were designed for.
Another problem is getting a perfect rectangle without distortion. Based on your tripod head, this can be somewhat frustrating. Even a single degree of tilt in
any direction can be very visible and force into post-production corrections, which I recommend avoiding. I prefer using a smartphone bubble level app which shows both axes at the same time in graphical form as well as a textual read-out. A good one is included in the AppBox Pro app. I aim for a tilt of +/- 0.1 degrees at the most.
There may also be a free option available to you – check with your local library. Some offer scanners with transparency capabilities. Unfortunately, this is not an often-utilized feature and as such their transparency holders may be missing rendering the scanner useless for these purposes.
No matter what digitization method you choose, invest in a good blower. Blowing the dust off your film before scanning can save you time digitally retouching your photos later. Sometimes people leave artefacts in place to further add to the charm of imperfection but I personally do not like dust spots as they tend to show up in unwelcome places like someone’s eye. My personal choice is the Giottos Rocket Blaster. You really do not want a tiny blower. Get a good powerful one and it will last you for years.
Archival and Organization
Once you have your film digitized, take care of your originals. You may want to come back later when you buy a better scanner, better macro lens, or technology advances allow for a superior scan. Film does not take that much space. Protect it well!
I recommend using the Print File Archival Storage Page for Negatives. They are available for several different film formats, including 35mm. Then, fill in the header section with your notes right away and file it into a binder you will place into a dry heated place.
Is this the end? No, this really is just the beginning of a wonderful journey. There is so much to learn, so many different processes to explore, and so many different products to take advantage of. While old-fashioned, I am a big fan of books and there are plenty of good ones about analog photography.
You can borrow them for free at your local library or get cheap second-hand ones in various online sources. If you prefer something a bit more modern where someone will walk you through the different topics, look up the variety of analog podcasts that will provide the education, as well as entertainment.
There are also dedicated groups on Facebook and other social platforms. Some are more general and others are very specialized. YouTube channels can also offer a lot of material. Take these inputs as guidance and form your own opinion and develop your own process, your own path to beautiful satisfying photographs.
What is next once you become comfortable with film? Your own darkroom may not be as out of reach as it can seem and would allow you to complete the photographic process in a fully analog fashion!
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